Do you ever ponder a mental list of jobs you could never, ever do and then feel a deep sense of gratitude that there are people who make the jobs that would scar you for life look perfectly suited to them?
Every time I think of the fine people in our military or those who serve as our first responders, I have this sense of “how?” How can they run toward the situations that would leave me catatonic or in flight mode?
After sitting down to interview Bay Maker Fr. Brendan McGuire of Holy Spirit Church in San Jose, I feel like I need to add clergy to my list.
How can he – and others like him – do the gut-wrenching work of a first responder to people’s souls without being weighed down to the point of paralysis in his own heart?
Lis Langedyk, a parishioner of Holy Spirit who nominated Fr. Brendan, will tell you that the answer lies both in his faith and in his never-ending energy to serve his community.
“I nominated Fr. Brendan because he is loved by many people and continually encourages us all to enhance our faith,” Lis says. “And I am particularly inspired by his recent efforts to serve the homeless by making it possible for our church to stay open as a shelter for women and children. He has even persuaded other neighboring churches to do the same,” she adds.
This effort to make a dramatic difference in the lives of the most vulnerable members of our community has been nearly a decade and a half in the making.
“We began serving the community through Sacred Heart in San Jose and then expanded our efforts to Sunday Friends and up into San Francisco,” Fr. Brendan explains of his work with the congregation over the past fourteen years.
Then, they started a mission trip to Nicaragua. It started with 20 volunteers, then grew to 40, then 60, then 80, and now includes 140 volunteers who spend one week enhancing the living conditions while sharing their hearts with the Nicaraguans they serve.
Other missionary work takes 60 of their church and school volunteers to East Texas each year to offer their hands and hearts to people in need. Through their partnership with Next Step Ministries, they travel to San Augustine County, an area with dilapidated homes and rising poverty that results in separation, isolation, and hopelessness. Holy Spirit parishioners work with the local base of church and community leaders that are committed to seeing their community thrive.
Yet despite all of the effort and impact from this outreach, Fr. Brendan knows there is more to be done. His vision is to build a human bridge from the green zone of affluence in Almaden Valley to the red zone of poverty on the city streets of downtown San Jose. But instead of the usual flood of smaller efforts to donate and sort food to benefit a great number of people, he is looking to make a dramatic impact on fewer individuals.
When asked to ponder the evolution of this changed focus, he credits a fateful night visiting Portland, Oregon as the impetus. That night, he found himself thirsty but reluctant to spend $15 for a bottle of water from his hotel room’s mini bar, so he headed down the street to a local store. At the entrance, he encountered a young man with a dog, asking for money. As a dog lover himself, Fr. Brendan bought them some food and water and struck up a conversation with the man by asking his dog’s name.
“Spooky,” the young man said.
“Do you mind if I ask why you’d name your dog Spooky?” Fr. Brendan asked with what I assume was the same delivery I experienced when he recounted this story to me… a subtle Irish lilt, wry smile, and an expression that was both serious and compassionate at the same time.
“The streets are spooky,” the young man offered as an explanation.
“How long have you been living on the streets?” Fr. Brendan inquired.
“Six years, but I got Spooky four years ago to protect me,” he explained.
Then, the young man went on to explain how he had run away from home at age twelve because of the abuse he suffered from his parents. He found his way to his grandparents, but then they passed away and he had nowhere to go.
“My shame met his shame when it occurred to me that I had asked his dog’s name, but not his,” Fr. Brendan said.
The young man’s name was Michael. During their 45-minute conversation, Michael shared that he sold newspapers on the streets for money and couldn’t spend his nights in a shelter because they wouldn’t take dogs. As they sat together on this Portland sidewalk – Michael and this plain-clothed priest – passersby offered money to both of them.
Before returning to his hotel, Fr. Brendan offered Michael $40 after the young man promised that it would be used for food.
As Fr. Brendan started to walk away, he asked Michael: “Is there anything else I can do for you?”
Michael replied, “you already did. You spoke to me. You said my name. It’s been weeks since I’ve heard it.”
This moment transformed Fr. Brendan. He felt his shame deepen for every person in similar circumstances that he had ever walked past without so much as a hello.
“I knew something would have to change in my ministry. I prayed about it for months,” he explained.
He felt the call to action in the winter of 2016 when an El Niño weather pattern was predicted for California, meaning a cold and wet winter without shelter for the area’s homeless. He worked with his team to prepare videos to educate the community about the needs of our local homeless population and then took the brave step of opening the church as an emergency shelter, with the hope of inspiring other places of worship to step forward to do the same.
With regulations in place that prohibit the church from acting as a shelter for more than 30 days, it is essential to work together with neighboring churches to come together to provide a safe haven for the fifteen medically-fragile women whose lives they intend to impact dramatically.
The program has become so successful that eight other religious institutions have joined the effort. Fr. Brendan hopes to see this impact continue to spread so that far more of our city’s homeless can be served.
The result of their combined efforts is Village House, an interfaith shelter of hope that is touching the lives of the homeless and the church parishioners who serve them. Holy Spirit alone has mobilized 500 volunteers who make sure the operation runs smoothly by preparing meals and cots each night.
People on both sides of the exchange are changed by the experience, with parishioners having “Spooky” moments of their own through the conversations they have with people they might have previously walked right past without taking the chance for transformative human connection.
One parishioner touched by her experience with the Holy Spirit church community is Brandy Varni. “Fr. Brendan is the reason I returned to church,” she explains. “After attending just one mass, I was pulled in by his dynamic personality and how he spoke to the congregation as a trusted friend. Growing up, priests always seemed unapproachable and church was something we ‘had’ to do on Sunday. But Fr. Brendan relates the teachings of the Bible to everyday life so that we can understand. It is as if he is talking directly to you during mass—he doesn’t judge your shortcomings and encourages you to be the best you can be,” Brandy adds.
Another parishioner, Julie Perucci, has similar thoughts about how Fr. Brendan has impacted Holy Spirit and the neighboring community through his example.
“Brendan has become one of our closest family friends, in addition to being our spiritual advisor. He has been with us through crises and deaths and also through joyful times like family gatherings and weddings. I think what makes him so special to the community is that he encourages people’s desire to step up their game because he doesn’t just preach—he works hard or harder than the rest of us to make a vision happen,” Julie explains.
Because of his work in inspiring the spirits of our community members – both those who attend his church and those who are touched by the many good deeds of its parishioners – Fr. Brendan McGuire is a Bay Maker. He is the type of friend, leader, and first responder to people’s souls who makes us proud to call the Bay Area home.